It can be said that there’s no true originality left in cinema.
Everything seems pulled from pieces of movie history, homages or outright rip-offs of films gone by.
Audacious and transgressive, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is clearly influenced by the work of cinematic legend Martin Scorsese, particularly his 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” and the 1983 cult of celebrity dramedy “The King of Comedy.”
It also happens to be deeply rooted in comic book lore, taking on the origins of a classic Batman villain already played to perfection both by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s “Batman” and by Heath Ledger in an Oscar-winning turn in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”
There shouldn’t be a need to take on this maniacal character yet again, but Phillips’ film is exceedingly unique in its interpretation and cements its place alongside movies like 2006’s “V For Vendetta” and 2017’s “Logan” as auteur comic book cinema.
Set in the backdrop of a downtrodden New York City during the late 1970s, “Joker” serves less as an origin story for a Batman villain than as a character study of a deeply disturbed man.
Professional clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck has dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian like his hero, Murray Franklin, but acts of violence and delusions of grandeur set Arthur down a path he’s unable to come back from.
“Joker” is a better film the further writer/director Phillips stays away from the movie’s comic book origins and hones in on Arthur’s wavering grasp on sanity.
The film only works as well as it does thanks to three-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix dropped more than 50 pounds in order to transform into Arthur Fleck.
Phoenix infuses the character with a chilling realism that transfixes and haunts viewers as he descends into madness, adopting clinically diagnosable conditions like uncontrollable laughing and paranoia to add intricate flourishes to his complex performance.
Though “Joker” doesn’t fully focus on mental health issues, Phoenix takes great care to deliver nuance throughout in a turn that rivals Ledger’s more chaotic work in the role.
Just as disturbingly provoking is the physicality of Phoenix’s performance as the actor twists and contorts his body so intensely that his spine and ribs almost burst through his skin. There is a considered theatricality to the way Phoenix moves throughout scenes, often gliding across the screen in a frantic, unchoreographed dance.
“Joker” doesn’t take full advantage of its supporting cast as much as one might expect.
Robert DeNiro was cast as talk show host Franklin more for his performance in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” than for what he could bring to the role itself. Phillips keeps DeNiro’s Franklin at a distance, often only allowing viewers to see the character through Arthur’s pensive gaze.
Zazie Beetz is considerably effective in limited screen time as Arthur’s neighbor and love interest, though the film fails to fully realize their connection and one or two additional scenes between Beetz and Phoenix could have cemented these unlikely kindred spirits.
The true standout among the secondary performers in “Joker” is Frances Conroy, who gives a dazzling turn as Arthur’s frail mother, Penny. Largely empathetic, her Penny goes through her own trials in limited screen time and is the most engaging and interesting in scenes opposite Phoenix out of the whole cast
Violence in “Joker” is gaudy and unapologetic, though rarely as terrifying as the general sense of inevitable dread that lingers and haunts most scenes. There isn’t as much as gun usage as one might expect given the dialogue surrounding the film, yet when Arthur commits violent acts, there is considerable carnage to the scenes that younger audiences used to comic book films will not understand.
“Joker” feels ripped straight out of another filmmaking era, stylistically and visually, with a gritty texture to each frame. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher harnesses the energy of 1970s crime dramas into his work and frames the entire film around Phoenix’s contorting body to enhance the eccentricity of his performance.
Shots are stylized and/or lifted from the works of Scorsese with an overt homage to “The Dark Knight” appearing in the final moments.
There’s an all or nothing prospect to the film’s award season chances. “Joker” will either be a top contender for Best Picture, cinematography, original score, adapted screenplay and direction or will get largely shut out altogether.
The exception here is Phoenix, whose special performance as the titular character should be a mainstay in the lead actor category regardless of how the movie performs as a whole.
Winner of the Golden Lion top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, “Joker” played to considerably less enthusiasm at the Toronto International Film Festival and has divided critics and regular audiences alike ever since.
“Joker” requires considerable buy-in from viewers in order to be effective. Those accepting of the way the film washes over audiences will find Phoenix’s Arthur complex to be complex and compelling as “Joker” struts its way to an almost nihilistic conclusion.
Skeptical audiences, conversely, will likely revile the film for its unfiltered chaos and increasingly manic lead.
The year’s most divisive and sure to be most talked about film, “Joker” is definitely worth seeing either on the big screen or at home for any ardent cinephile.